Nevada tribe fights coal plant in pollution battle

May 4 2012 - 10:39am

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In Nevada, Sierra Club is working with the Moapa Band of Paiutes to transition NV Energy away from the Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant -- which sits only 45 miles from Las Vegas and a short walk from community housing at the Moapa River Indian Reservation.
In Nevada, Sierra Club is working with the Moapa Band of Paiutes to transition NV Energy away from the Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant -- which sits only 45 miles from Las Vegas and a short walk from community housing at the Moapa River Indian Reservation.

MOAPA, Nev. -- Kami Miller's heart flutters irregularly, she needs an inhaler to breathe and she's been diagnosed with thyroid problems. Even more troubling, her 12-year-old son already has the same health woes.

For the Miller family, there is little doubt why they and their fellow tribe members living on the tiny Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation outside Las Vegas are struggling with a litany of medical problems. Steps away from their front doors, a 50-year-old, coal-burning power plant churns out a blanket of white and yellow smoke that hangs over their reservation and obscures the mountain views their people have long admired.

"We just want some clean air to breathe," Miller, 37, said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is on a decades-long mission to decrease air pollution from coal-fired power plants because of the thick haze they create that obscures the iconic views and stunning vistas associated with the nation's federal parks and wilderness areas. In southern Nevada, the Reid Gardner Generation Station bordering the Paiutes' reservation limits visibility at multiple parks and wilderness areas, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion in Utah and Joshua Tree National Monument in California.

But for the Paiute tribe, who have long lived off the land their ancestors settled hundreds of years ago, the campaign to make national parks more beautiful for tourists is a personal battle. If the coal plant is forced to limit its emissions, perhaps their health woes will also decrease, tribe elders say.

"My people are dying from that thing," said Eric Lee, a tribe leader who has suffered from regular nose bleeds that he blames on the power plant's toxic emissions. "Especially on cloudy days, it smells, it stinks like rotten eggs."

The Moapa Paiute tribe has 300 members, roughly half of whom live under the shadow of Reid Gardner's four smokestacks. For years, tribe members have complained of skin irritation, lung disease, thyroid problems, aggravated asthma and heart disease. Their insistence that these medical problems can be linked to the foul air pouring from the plant has long been ignored, largely because there is no direct medical evidence to back up their claims.

The tribe pleaded for the EPA's intervention on Thursday, when the federal agency held its first public hearing at the reservation as part of the ongoing visibility campaign. For nearly four hours, dozens of reservation and southern Nevada residents described living with the coal plant: parents no longer letting their children play outside because of health fears, teenagers interrupting school sports games to reach for their inhalers and neighbors dying of heart trouble.

"It's so frustrating to see so many people have this type of illness and nothing is being done about it," William Anderson, the tribe council chairman, said.

The EPA has ordered coal plants to embrace new technologies designed to reduce pollutants that obscure visibility under the 1977 Clean Air Act. In the West, average visibility has dropped from 140 miles to between 35 to 90 miles. The goal is to protect what visibility remains, said Colleen McKaughan, an associate director in the EPA's air division.

"That haze obscures the scenery, especially out here in the West where a lot of people come to see the vistas," she said.

McKaughan said the hearing at the reservation was not intended to address anecdotal health complaints. Still, she said the EPA is interested in valid medical problems caused by pollution.

"We understand why they would prefer not to breathe this stuff. We totally get it," she said.

When coal is burned, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds are released into the air, according to the EPA. Research has shown those fine particles can be linked to serious health problems, including premature death.

But the Moapa Paiute tribe can only rely on general data to back up their claims. Despite their health concerns, the tribe has been unsuccessful in persuading local, state and federal health officials to investigate their complaints.

The lack of direct evidence has stroked accusations that the tribe's medical problems have been exaggerated by environmental activists who want to see the coal plant shuttered.

Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who represents Moapa, said the plant creates much needed jobs and tax dollars for the area.

"They are using those Indians as a vehicle to shut down the plant," Collins said of the environmental groups who want the facility closed. "As long as they are complying with the laws, (the plant) benefits the entire community."

The Reid Gardner facility provides enough electricity to power 335,000 Nevada households, according to NV Energy, the utility company that operates the plant. Under the EPA proposal, NV Energy would have five years to install nitrogen oxide burners, instead of more expensive selective catalytic emissions scrubbers that environmentalists claim do a better job of reducing emissions.

"We will continue our commitment to operate the Reid Gardner station in an environmentally responsible manner, in compliance with all federal and state laws, and in the best interests of its customers," spokesman Mark Severts said.

The Muddy River near the plant feeds into Lake Mead, the massive reservoir that serves Mexico, California, Nevada and Arizona.

"Second-rate pollution control is not good enough here," said Dan Galpern, a lawyer representing the tribe and the Sierra Club in Nevada.

 

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